The 6th ASEAN People’s Forum: Towards a People-Centered Labor Relations and Economic Integration1 a Joint Statement

by the Alliance of Progressive Labor and Labor Education and Research Network

PART I – Harmonizing Labor Advocacies: a Challenge for Southeast Asian Civil Society and People’s Organizations

The Philippine Labor movement remains vigilant in ensuring that intergovernmental agents and national governments who are involved in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) processes and community-building endeavors cope with the exigencies of the time. As the ASEAN People’s Forum resumes on the 23rd to 26th of September 2010, progressive workers’ organizations led by the Alliance of Progressive Labor (APL) and the Labor Education and Research Network (LEARN) aim to project to the larger Asian community the struggles, feats and aspirations of the labor sector in the Philippines and protect the 280 million plus workers in ASEAN especially in the context of stronger neo-liberal globalization policies, the aftermath of the global financial crisis, growing complexity in migration patterns, and economic integration. It is imperative that Philippine labor groups, being the relatively oldest in the whole of Asia, provide the democratic impetus for a region-wide labor agenda.

Accordingly, there is a need to harmonize strategies, advocacies, legislative agenda and action plans among Southeast Asian civil society and non-government organizations towards the pursuit of a people-centered labor relations and economic integration in the Southeast Asian Region. Elsewhere in the world, there are calls for social and economic reforms vis-à-vis labor issues.

In Southeast Asia, however, things are more lucid: there is a need for a consistent and concerted action among people’s organizations in order to demarcate the lines between a humanist and society-centered behavior of labor, financial, production means, and commodities markets and a neo-liberal globalist and capitalistic market competition and multilateral cooperation. Questions however persist as to how the Philippine progressive labor centers can rally the quiescent giant, that is, the ASEAN labor movement.

The labor force of ASEAN is still characterized by its weak and loose social movement base despite the improvements in immigration and communications technology. Worse, “governments are framing migration, given the billions of remittances involved, as an instrument of development putting labor at the mercy of the global market – [n]ot only are workers commoditized through the labor-export policies of states but are likewise being traded at bilateral and multilateral trade agreements.”2 Thus far, the Philippine labor movement can boast of its wide range of policy pursuits with emphasis on three major schemes. First, there is a growing opposition to race to the bottom neo-liberal globalization policies on labor.

Instead of acceding to unfair trade and economic policies and agreements, the government should guarantee the right of workers to land secure and quality jobs. At the last count, 2.83 million Filipinos (out of the 30 million labor force) are unemployed and the unemployment rate has been growing from 2007, the year that the global financial crisis struck. As a result, the previous Arroyo administration responded with a policy of “exporting” labor services and even made an absurd effort to include overseas employment in local employment statistics! We need to reduce the incidence of migration out of necessity by securing local employment and improving the workers’ rights.

In line with this, states need to adopt a coherent industrial policy beyond encouraging small and medium enterprises (SMEs), implement infant industry protection (and therefore “selective” liberalization) and encourage regional cooperation (instead of competition in terms of producing similar low-value added products and raw materials). These initiatives, however, should be made without compromising the agenda of full employment and increased social protection for all. Second, there are calls for improving labor justice in the Philippines as well as strengthening the protection of labor and trade union rights. For instance, a bill was signed in Congress that would seek to control and/or regulate contractualization and flexibilization of labor in the country.

As a larger goal, Philippine progressive labor groups in their unity statement3 also want the government to apply ILO Conventions No. 87, which concerns Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organize and No. 98, which concerns the Application of the Principles of the Right to Organize and to Bargain Collectively. Lastly, there exist social networks that aim at protecting the civil and political rights of workers with the main goal of conducting an impartial and full investigation of violations of all trade union and human rights. This is to address the prevailing view that the labor justice in the Philippines is slow and litigious and oftentimes produces results that are largely in favor of employers. In reaching all of these goals, the APL and LEARN believe that alternatives to statist and capitalist labor relations and regional integration should be reconciled with the objective of making ASEAN a genuinely people-oriented association (though a motley collection) of states – alternatives that should be worked out hand in hand by Southeast Asian civil society and people’s organizations.

PART II – On ASEAN’s “Character” Change: From Being a “Clublike” Association of States Pursuing their Individual Interests to a More People- and Society-based Regional Grouping

The ASEAN has to accept the challenge of pursuing and not just recognizing the importance of job creation, development of the quality of the workforce and provision of social security to the workers as stated in its founding documents. In doing so, it has to seek higher ends that cut across borders while at the same time zeroing in on the needs of each country’s domestic socio-political realities.

In this line of thought, may we remind that in five years’ time, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) set by the United Nations’ Development Programme will be due. Calls for the governments of ASEAN, especially the Philippines, to double their time in meeting the goals have thus become louder. Of these MDGs, Goal 8, that is, to develop a global partnership for development, impacts on ASEAN regional engagements. It is not a very recent phenomenon that the pursuit of free trade agreements (FTA) has been at the center of ASEAN’s approach to economic integration.

ASEAN even plans to (i) liberalize trade and investments; (ii) facilitate trade and harmonize rules; and (iii) strengthen mechanisms for cooperation among the parties. This has been regarded as a major roadmap towards narrowing the economic development gap within the region. However, as there should be more reasons for ASEAN to raise its people-centered consciousness and sustainability, the targets that fall under the MDG 8 should provide clarity and redirection to the aims of ASEAN in the next five years.

These targets temporally coincide with the ASEAN’s economic growth and development paradigm, which aims to create a single market and production base with free flow of goods, services and investments by 2015. As such, ASEAN’s view should be based on the targets of the MDG 8 which are: 1) to develop further an open, rule-based, predictable, non-discriminatory trading and financial system; 2) to address the special needs of the least developed, land-locked, and small island developing countries; 3) to deal comprehensively with debt problems of developing countries through national and international measures in order to make debt sustainable in the long-run; and 4) in cooperation with developing as well as developed countries, create and implement strategies for decent and productive work for the youth.4 Nevertheless, LEARN and APL, in cooperation with relevant social sectors, want to see ASEAN as an entity that is not only able to establish lasting relationships based on “fair” trade, economic and diplomatic integration and investment but also as a potent force in ensuring that poverty at the regional level will be reduced come the 2015 deadline for attaining the MDGs.5 Individual countries cannot do this alone.

Besides, it is not just the workers of individual states who are affected by poverty and its diverse consequences but their families and societies as a whole, including Southeast Asian groupings. Without any compromise on this matter, the labor sector wants to engage ASEAN leaders, through the APF, in making a people-oriented regional economic integration be in line and work with a humanist and society-centered poverty alleviation prospect of the MDGs by 2015. Specifically, we call for the review and renegotiation of foreign trade agreements that impact negatively on the welfare of Southeast Asian people.

Measures should be taken by ASEAN to address the negative externalities, social cost and policy loopholes of agreements that were concluded by ASEAN members with China, Japan, Korea, Australia and New Zealand, and India – so much the same with its recently launched negotiations with the European Union and explored long term economic partnership with the United States.6 As far as the development banks and international financial institutions (the likes of Asian Development Bank (ADB), World Bank (WB) and International Monetary Fund (IMF), which are very notorious in setting up hostile “conditionalities”) are concerned, precise measures should be taken so as to prevent ASEAN-member countries from succumbing to unfair economic and political policies as well as falling into the trap of foreign debt servicing.7 As much as possible, ASEAN should create a review committee that can handle cost-benefit analyses of ASEAN FTAs, foreign aid and developmental lending and make recommendations for aborting any engagements proven to be detrimental to the majority of people. Assuming that “fair” trade can still be plausible at the regional level and in dealings with non-ASEAN members, efforts should be exerted in such a way that a) long-term development that accrue to trade agreements is ensured and b) parameters and conditions are set and clarified, respectively. Such actions will not be violative of ASEAN’s core values of compromise and consensus in a spirit of constructiveness and mutual respect for relevant stakeholders can bring their issues to the committee. There is just a need to relax the established norm of non-interference in the internal affairs of individual states.

LEARN and APL believe that workers in the ASEAN should work towards:

1.Consolidating a workers’ vision of an alternative regionalism that is not dependent on any imperial project. A regional cooperation where ASEAN countries have: a regional industrial policy and a common agricultural policy; a regional trade policy, consistent with its industrial and agricultural policies; and an ASEAN Development Fund that would help ASEAN countries to veer away from IMF, WB and ADB;

2.Pushing for an ASEAN Social Charter;

3.Developing a strong autonomous workers’ movement in the region. The reconfiguration of labor organizations to make them become independent of their governments and capitalistic business conglomerates must be supported by the people of ASEAN.

Indeed, there is a need for ASEAN to be much more people-oriented in its dealings with individual states and non-state actors. According to APF organizers, “Regional integration should begin with and be based on the people’s integration.” Thus, once regional economic integration is attained, the association should remain true and loyal to its commitment to recognize, protect and promote the rights of people in Southeast Asia. Similarly, in the context of an ever-changing global environment, people from ASEAN should help in upholding and exercising their rights especially in relation to how they produce, develop and reap the fruits of their labor.

Footnotes:
1 This discussion paper was written based on the draft workshop concept papers for the 6th ASEAN People’s Forum and ASEAN documents such as the ASEAN Charter and APF Concept Paper.

2 Viajar, V. D. (2008). The Labour Movement and Democratization in the Philippines: a Template for Southeast Asia (draft). Presented at the Conference on Democracy, Development and Peace in Asia 10-12 November, 2008, Kathmandu, Nepal

3 Taken from the Labor Unity Platform (no date)– a political statement drafted by progressive labor groups in the Philippines that make up the Collective Labor Agenda (CLA) and Contra (anti-contractualization network) and include the Major Labor Centers such as: Alliance of Progressive Labor (APL), Bukluran ng Manggagawang Pilipino (BMP), and Manggagawa para sa Kalayaan ng Bayan (MAKABAYAN); and Major Labor Organization, Federations and Industry Alliances such as: Philippine Metalworkers’ Alliance (PMA), Alliance of Coca-Cola Unions in the Philippines (ACCUP), Confederation of Independent Unions in the Public Sector (CIU), Kapisanan ng mga Maralitang Obrero (KAMAO), League of Independent Bank Organizations (LIBO), National Alliance of Broadcast Unions (NABU), National Federation of Labor (NFL), National Union of Building and Construction Workers (NUBCW), National Union of Workers in Hotel Restaurants and Allied Industries (NUWHRAIN), Partido ng Mangagagawa (PM), Pinag-isang Tinig at Lakas ng Anak Pawis (PIGLAS), Postal Employees Union of the Philippines (PEUP), and Workers’ Solidarity Network (WSN)

4 United Nations Development Programme – Millennium Development Goals (MDGs): http://www.undp.org/mdg

5 Albeit in its current form – less democratic, non-transparent, unaccountable, without a real sense of unity in the face of imperial encroachments and devoid of a social pillar – ASEAN must still strive to adopt changes that cater to its people. If ASEAN wants to play the role of building a real “community” – then it has to alter its less democratic character, shed off its neo-liberal thinking, and start going beyond being a “motley collection of states”.

6 In establishing the China-ASEAN FTA, what happened was China simply negotiated with each of the ASEAM-member countries and then collected all the agreements and called it China-ASEAN FTA. The same thing happened with Japan, though at least, the ASEAN signed a comprehensive economic partnership agreement (CEPA) with the country. Now, in the EU-ASEAN FTA, the same thing with China is happening again. Frustrated by “low ambitions,” the EU decided to deal with ASEAN not as a bloc but individually through bilateral agreements.

7 As in its dealings with the WTO, the ASEAN has never worked as a regional bloc. It cannot because it is made up of states with varying degrees of development, not to mention their differing political settings, i.e. having socialist, authoritarian, republican and monarchical states in one organization. And truth is many of these countries compete with each other based on a narrow band of commodities.

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